Oyster harvest shows modest comeback Scientists encouraged as shellfish diseases ease

April 01, 1997|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

Oyster season ended yesterday, and the state's preliminary figures support one oysterman's assessment that it was "a pretty decent year."

The state Department of Natural Resources, which monitors the oyster harvest by weekly counts of the "buy tickets" used when a waterman sells his catch at the dock, projected a harvest of 128,000 bushels with a market value of $2.8 million. The oyster season runs October through March.

"The disease levels declined," DNR shellfish biologist Chris Judy said. "The biggest improvement was in the Little Choptank."

State figures for the harvest through the end of February, the last month for which the "buy tickets" have been counted, show that 27,000 bushels of oysters were taken from the Little Choptank River. The next most productive area was the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, which yielded 15,000 bushels. Other areas that provided 10,000 bushels or more were the Nanticoke River, Tangier Sound, and St. Mary's River.

Scientists and watermen said that the two parasites that have ravaged the Chesapeake oyster, Dermo and MSX, continue to be felt. But this year's harvest showed the benefit of heavy rains in three of the past four years.

"The key things we see happening this year are [that] freshwater inflow lowered salinity levels baywide, and that lowered the disease levels," Judy said. In water that has lower salinity, Dermo's effects are greatly reduced and MSX will disappear almost entirely, according to Don Merritt, a scientist at the Center for Environmental and Estuarine Studies in Cambridge.

Merritt and Tilghman Island skipjack captain Russell Dize emphasized that although this year's harvest is up slightly, the oyster harvest continues to be a fraction of what it was two decades ago when annual harvests ran well above 2 million bushels.

"Look at what levels we have shrunk to," Merritt said. "It's an encouraging sign, but we're still at a small percentage of what we were."

Dize, who harvested oysters by dredging from his skipjack, the Kathryn, concurred. "It's way off from what we used to have," he said. Still, he said,it was better than the past couple of years. "We had a pretty decent year compared to what we've been having. Oysters seemed to come back a little in Harris Creek, Broad Creek and the Tred Avon, and the Little Choptank was remarkable."

Pub Date: 4/01/97

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